Sunday, 28 September 2014

Restaurant review: My Old Place, Spitalfields

I’ve walked the twisty turny alleyways of Spitalfields many times. But on this day, they had a different feel for two reasons.

On this day, the papers carried the news of the real identity of Jack the Ripper. As I walked past the usual scores of Ripper tours, I imagined the tour-guides having to quickly adjust their patter to accommodate the breaking news. From DNA testing of a silk shawl, 23 year old Polish immigrant Aaron Kosminski is the culprit, for those unlikely to make it to a Ripper tour. This news made the cobbled streets more alive with gory history than usual. 

And it felt more disorientating than usual because it was my first day of a new job. The first day os a new job makes everything feel foreign. Things that come as second nature suddenly feel conscious and awkward. It’s like the first step between a boat and solid ground.

Stepping into My Old Place felt like leaving an East End alleyway and entering a local’s diner in Kowloon.  

Everything is brisk and practical. Wipe-clean wooden refectory tables, a kitchen full of chefs going at full tilt and extractor fans whirring. Every table heaved with brightly coloured plates of food, being devoured lustily.

Chinese lettuce and sour sauce, shredded beef and green chillis and a cold shredded potato in a spicy sauce – so delicious they were eaten before they were photographed.  

The menu is as long as the Old Testament and, in some places, as enigmatic. The waiting staff don’t patronise. If you choose to order a vulgar amount of food, they’re not going to question you. In fact, I smashed my personal best for over-ordering in a Chinese restaurant.

This place is about community and humanity. You’ll eat decent authentic Chinese food backed by the din of kitchen and customers. It’s a disorientating, mixed-up kind of experience but one which, for all of that, makes you feel strangely at home.

Thursday, 25 September 2014

Restaurant review: Honest Burger, King's Cross

A recent extension to the Honest Burger chain, this one is found in the hinterland just past Kings Cross. The restaurant is a bit of a fishbowl wedged between the road that leads to Angel and the road that leads to Clerkenwell.

The staff were OK, but tending towards the laissez-faire.

The menu is nicely designed, with good typography telling you about their curated collection of burgers. 

We started with onion rings, which were impressive in size but weighed down by a heavy fish & chip shop batter.

The burgers put in a solid, not stellar, performance. Considering Honest source their beef from The Ginger Pig, I was a bit disappointed. 

The chips were so salty, I’d hazard a guess the lid fell of the salt-shaker as they were sprinkled.

The epicurean highlight of this meal actually came courtesy of a drinks brand I’d not come across before. Ossie’s Fresh Ginger is my new favourite thirst quencher.

If this is honesty, give me dissemblance, spin and wizardry – best embodied in the soft drinks machine at Five Guys.

Restaurant review: Outlaw's Fish Kitchen, Cornwall (revisited)

I seem to have gone from writing no follow-ups to two follow-ups inside a week. 

The Michelin stars for 2015 came out today and I was delighted to see Nathan Outlaw's Fish Kitchen earned its first star.

The little lunch we had there, on a day that called for mittens and bobble-hats between Christmas and New Year, has really stood the test of time in the memory stakes. 

Not only was the food delicious and imaginative, but the restaurant is so snug and inviting you want to roll out your sleeping bag and stay there. 

Outlaw's Fish Kitchen review

And the stars go to...

Wednesday, 24 September 2014

Restaurant review: L'Iskele, Clerkenwell (revisited)

I think there's space in the market for an app that tells you restaurants who give you free shots in your area. 

It's one I'd like to do the research for. 

I'm sure trendwatchers would give it a fancy name. The irresistible pull of getting free stuff. They'd give it a snappy title like 'Freesumers' or 'Reward Inc', something like that. 

I call it the joy of the extra unnecessary drink. 

We revisited L'Iskele the other night. It's local, we're lazy - that's how randoms become regulars. 

The notable differences this time were: 

- the size of the portions. L'Iskele serves portions to satisfy a weight watcher who has not just fallen off the wagon, but belly-flopped off it. I ordered the lamb chops. I got five. 

- the generosity extended to the free drinks that came with our bill. Not satisfied with giving us one round of complimentary large Amarettos, it was swiftly followed by the same again. 

The joy of the extra unnecessary drink.

L'Iskele review 2013

Restaurant review: L'Enclume, Cartmel

L’Enclume is the poster child of the slow trend. There’s a very off-grid feel to the whole thing. From the moment you arrive in Cartmel, unplugging is the name of the game. It’s a village with little phone reception, and even fewer parking spaces, so you end up abandoning the car somewhere far away, a bit like a naturally-occurring Center Parcs.

Its relaxed vibe was well-timed. Sartre and I had spent a fractious day – I’d worried him by pointing out a signpost to Gretna when we were up at Keswick, and he’d vexed me by insisting on a trip to the Derwent Pencil Museum.

Negotiating the village on foot is very much part of the experience. You could be 200 miles from the M6, not 20. And the fact Cartmel is in the Lakes, but doesn’t resemble Lakes topography at all, adds to this uncharted feel.  

We stayed at L’Enclume in the little collection of rooms by the same name, across the village from the restaurant itself. As the sun sets, you’d be hard-pressed to find something nicer than having a drink on the tiny square, bordered by a traditional English pub on each side.

Having slaked our thirsts and forgiven each other for the crimes of the day, we wandered under the medieval arch and down the lane to L’Enclume.

L’Enclume means anvil in French and there are bits of rusting farmyard machinery artfully placed through the restaurant. The white-washed stone walls and cottage garden glimpsed through the windows make you feel as if you’re in Cesar Soubeyran’s house.  

Marcus Wareing has been quoted as saying ‘formality is out’ in modern dining and that’s in evidence here, not just in the rustic simplicity of the room.  Simon Rogan’s able front-of-house crew are enemies of the frosty and stuffy. They’re warm and engage you in chit chat. (On hearing our account of the day, the waiter was clearly on my side on the Derwent Pencil Museum).  

I think the current foodie craze is built on the fact that people seek out novel experiences, rather than just a preferred option. It taps deep-seated human drivers like adventure and self-improvement. For me, L’Enclume delivers supreme novelty in an understated way. You don’t get stories behind the dishes or fussy presentation, you just get jaw-dropping cooking, with well-produced ingredients in daring combinations.

The alchemy comes to life in plate after magical plate (and sometimes, slate, bowl, or miniature rockery).  Local produce is the backbone of the menu – in fact, L’Enclume grows many of its ingredients on its own farm just outside the village - but is served in concert with the odd exotic ingredient. 

If one (unreasonably talented) chef made each of the 20 courses we ate that night from start to finish, one after the other before moving on to the next one, it would take two and a half months.  Which certainly encourages you to appreciate every bite. A few of special note:

  • The oyster pebbles – perfect little oyster-flavoured meringues, served with a herb that tastes exactly like oysters . (We either looked like fine dining rookies or two very hungry people, because our waiter felt the need to advise us not to eat the real pebbles that the dish was served on).
  • Cream celeriac and ox tongue – the meaty tongue submerged in the delicious celeriac and Tunworth mixture, like a lurking edible Nessy
  • Potatoes in onion ash – quite remarkable flavours from humble ingredients
  • Iced blueberry and sheep’s milk – the latter delivered as tiny spherical balls of pure dairy oomph

The skill level is immense and awe-inspiring. The gods of the kitchen managing to create gasps of wonder (and hisses of envy) with every dish. And it’s miles away from being a vanity project. It’s all unfailingly delicious.

If you seek escape from life’s algorithms and want to eat food that gives you bragging rights for life, then book your trip now. Just bear in mind your drive home will probably mean an encounter with service station food – the definition of a rough bump back down to earth.  

Saturday, 5 July 2014

Restaurant review: 8 Hoxton Square, Shoreditch

Following the location-based nomenclature of their original 10 Greek Street in Soho, 8 Hoxton Square is Luke Wilson and Cameron Emirali's recently-opened second restaurant.

On a summer's evening, with the patio doors flung open to admit the cooling breeze coming in from the square, this is a lovely little fastness to hole up in. 

Scrubbed brick walls, straight-backed banquettes and wooden-slatted chairs reclaimed from a Victorian primary school, make it clear that the emphasis is on the food, not the fittings. 

The daily-changing menu is chalked up on a board and it's all about freshness and seasonality. It was one of those menus where you'd like a few more stomachs, much like a cow, in order not to have decide. 

My Dad was a very happy dining partner, because his favourite was on the menu. Whole plaice and brown shrimp. It was a tense moment checking they still had some left (see Social Eating House) and I only felt I could relax after his order had been accepted by the kitchen. Phew.  I ate smoked eel. 

On a totally peripheral note, they have a nice knack of cutting lemons in a shallow way so that you don't get any pips when you come to squeeze it. Far nicer than those Women's Institute style muslin wrappers that lemons usually come in, or the metal paper-clip style squeezer you get on Indian starters, next to the raita. 

The colourful hipsters of Hoxton streaming through the doors were a source of amusement to my Dad. Including one girl wearing a floppy hat with a wider brim than that absurd hat of Andie McDowell's in Four Weddings a Funeral.

All in all, the vibe is nice and I think it's good value for well-cooked, simple yet engaging dishes. Nice staff and an imaginative wine list to boot. 

Restaurant review: The Berners Tavern, London

This is one of the new 'it' hotels, where George Clooney was recently snapped with his bride-to-be.

I've now eaten breakfast, lunch and dinner here - although not all in the same day, which would show a stifling lack of adventure - and I'm underwhelmed. Considering it's Jason Atherton - whose trio of Socials in Soho wow me, it's a misfire.

It certainly looks the part. A magnificent grand ding room, walls covered in a mosaic of oil paintings, and a sparkly Gatsby-style bar where pretty things drink pretty drinks.

The food is just a bit predictable. It might be that this is a hotel and needs to cater to a broader appeal than his other restaurants.

The service is really where my vexation finds its victim. For breakfast the other day, we had to wait 20 minutes for our order to be taken.  This despite some very good impressions of meerkats from several of us on the table. They repeatedly bring the wrong orders to your table - this happened twice.

And I'd avoid the main bar after midnight like the plague. Unless you're an overpaid financier or a lady of the night.

Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Restaurant review: Lofoten, Oslo


City of gleaming water, clean air, and people as mightily healthy as their viking ancestors.  

With colleagues I ate at this popular seafood restaurant on the harbour. 

Norway just does things well. Thoughtfully, carefully and smartly. This restaurant is no exception. 

The waiting staff were excellent. The modern art on the walls was subtly provocative. The cutlery was heavy and well-crafted. The windows opening the restaurant up to the sea were spotless. 

The Norwegian business class were in here in abundance on a Wednesday early evening, creating a nice buzz and a palpable envy (in me) of their enlightened way of life. 

After a generous bowl of peeled prawns to start, I ate reindeer steak for main course. Light-touch in preparation, the freshness of the ingredients spoke for themselves. A delicious, simply done meal. 

We paid Scandinavian prices for dinner for four with a couple of bottle of wines, with the bill coming to nearly £600. 

Kiosk review: St John's doughnuts, London Bridge

On our way to the Fashion and Textiles Museum, we visited the hole in the wall that sells St John's doughnuts in London Bridge.

There are moments when you know you've been in London too long and have turned in to the kind of yuppie that you scoffed at, growing up in a Midlands town in the 90s.

That moment was paying £2.70 for one doughnut.

I'd get knocked into next week if I went back to my hometown and told people I'd spent £2.70 on one doughnut.

It was a very good doughnut. And eating it straight from a brown paper St John bag lent its own rustic charm. 

Restaurant review: Tuddenham Mill, Suffolk

This place oozes ‘Mr and Mrs Smith’. A 17th century converted watermill in a tiny village not far from Cambridge, where pig farms appear to be the only sign of industry for miles.

It describes itself as rustic chic. Whilst this is an admittedly well-worn concept, Tuddenham Mill does it very well.

It does it with a bit more capaciousness than you might be used to.
We had a room of massive proportions in a spick and span outbuilding, with a lovely terrace and complimentary sloe-gin.
You have to love a place that encourages you to check in and drink sloe-gin before dinner time (or at least that’s how we interpreted the freebie).

Courtesy of Tuddenham Mill
The gorgeous exterior made me think of Grand Designs. "Today, we're in Suffolk meeting the couple who gave up lucrative careers in the city of London, to come to the sticks to do up this 17th century watermill."

The restaurant here used to be presided over by Paul Foster, who trained under Sat Bains. Paul Foster recently moved to Mallory Court in Warwickshire – another chocolate box hotel in a rural setting - and the kitchen is now run by Lee Bye, who was his sous chef.

The staff were pleasant throughout but there was the odd service bum-note that gave the impression the hotel had only just opened (it hasn’t).
For pre-dinner drinks we sat in the bar next to the mill’s water-wheel. Whilst highly pleasing to the eye, the bar smelt a little damp and our cocktail waiter didn’t know what a Negroni was, which raised an eyebrow.

I had the glazed monk cheek with coppa to start followed by the Dingley Dell pork chop.  
Sartre had the beef shin carpaccio to start followed by duck breast and roasted chervil roots.
The food is presented on plates that are clean and pretty, and the ingredients were expertly handled and tasted local and delicious.

Although there were about ten other tables that night, the dining room’s downside is that it’s serious and hushed.

The food’s well worth the trip and Tuddenham Mill is a pleasing little bolt-hole to discover.